s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: Book Review: Cryptonomicon

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Book Review: Cryptonomicon

I picked this book up because it’s by Neal Stephenson and I loved Snow Crash. (That’s Loved with a capital lateral fricative.) It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, but I was a little disappointed with Cryptonomicon.

To begin with, it wasn’t nearly as witty. The main character in Snow Crash is named Hiro Protagonist (he’s Japanese-American), and the entire book is full of that kind of straight faced tongue-in-cheek attitude. One of the main characters in Cryptonomicon is a marine named Bobby Shaftoe, which is also clever. (There’s a nursery rhyme about a sailor named Bobby Shaftoe.) But the overall tone is much more sober, which is fitting for a war novel, I guess.

Where Snow Crash was clever, Cryptonomicon is smart, I have to admit. The former throws in dashes of history, linguists, philosophy and mythology. The latter is heavy on number theory, cryptography and computer science, complete with an appendix explaining the crucial last cipher used in the book. (I’ll admit to having skipped that part, albeit with a guilty conscience. Maybe some day I’ll come back to it.)

And I was really heartbroken when one of the main characters died. I won’t say who, so as not to spoil the ending, although several people die, actually, and one comes back from the dead and one suffers a fate worse than death. Really, this is a war novel and you’d think I’d be prepared, but I get attached to fictional characters rather easily. (This is pretty much why I don’t watch T.V. anymore, as I got too upset when characters died or left the show.)

So, between the people dying and the math and the lack of Snow Crash-esque wit, I had plenty of time to come to the conclusion that Neal Stephenson does not, in fact, know how to write women.

Maybe it’s just the genre – you can’t expect to have three-dimensional females in a war novel. It ruins the atmosphere. So the women are either pale, perfect flowers or they are basically men with breasts. (Come to think of it, Michelangelo had trouble with that last one, too.)

Our cast of female characters is as follows:
  • Glory Altamira – Perfect, beautiful, patiently waiting for her sailor, left to a terrible fate in a war-torn country

  • Amy Shaftoe – Tough, unemotional, possibly a lesbian, ends up becoming properly mushy and weak and feminine just in time to hook up with the hero (That’s a spoiler, I guess. Sorry.)

  • Mary Smith – Beautiful, refined, feminine, having only been educated in etiquette and feminine charm, she is in all other ways useless

There are a couple of other female characters, but none that we’re supposed to side with. So, if this is the pantheon of appropriate femininity that exists in the world, I don’t see a place for myself. And it’s all good to say that these characters are just shallow, but if it’s a book written by a man, for men, isn’t this what men really want?


At November 02, 2005 3:28 PM, Blogger JB said...

That's where your avatar comes from. It's so much cooler now that I've seen the whole picture!

At November 02, 2005 9:23 PM, Blogger Melyngoch said...

It's written by a red, for red, so it probably is, indeed, what red people want.

At November 03, 2005 9:19 AM, Blogger Toasteroven said...

I highly doubt that that men represents all the others. Just plain silliness.

At November 03, 2005 2:20 PM, Blogger JB said...

Amy Shaftoe sounds like she could come from the pages of Fascinating Womanhood. It's sad to read a book you'd otherwise enjoy and find that the women are so poorly portrayed. Even women have a hard time breaking out of that Mary vs. Eve thing.

At November 06, 2005 9:52 PM, Blogger Katya said...

JB and 3M - glad you like the new blogskin. It was actually a ridiculous amount of work, but now I know a lot more about blogger sourcecode. (And I still need to tweak a couple of things . . . )

At November 11, 2005 8:40 PM, Anonymous Petra said...

I quite liked it, and barely noticed the lack of female characters. Or rather, noticed it, but then ignored it. I got really into the mathematics of it all and read several books about codes afterwards. It made for a lovely distraction from finals freshman year.

I'm really taking advantage of my new-found ability to post on your blog, n'est-ce pas?


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